May 15, 2015

Horse 1897 - The Big Blue - The A-League Grand Final

In the last five fixtures that Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC have played against each other, there have been ten goals and five draws. In the 2014/15 A-League season, Melbourne took out the Premier's Plate by just three points and Sydney was left to wonder where in its season. That it could have done more. Melbourne Victory held the record for both the best defence and the best attack in the league and so its fitting that they are minor premiers (and I think daft that we even have a finals series.
On paper, with nothing to separate them in 450 minutes of football, I'd expect that Melbourne should in theory do just enough against Sydney to finally break the deadlock and confirm their place as top dog.

Even though both Melbourne and Sydney had a bye going into their semi final, both of them looked fragile before breaking out and grinding their respective opponents into the ground. Victory beat cross-town rivals City 3-0 and Sydney looked initially shaky against Adelaide United but dealt with them 4-1.
In those results is contains the reason why I think that the Melbourne Victory will hold aloft the prized Toilet Seat of Wonder and why Sydney will be left to ponder what could have been.

I don't think that Victory are any better set up defensively than Sydney. Both sides will play 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 if the need requires and both of them will tend to hack through the middle if they can. Neither side is particularly skilled at making transitional play out of their own third and the goals that both sides score, tend more to be the result of scrappy play in and around opposition's 18 yard boxes rather than some piece of worked play. Although that's never pretty, for both Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC, it is incredibly effective because it means that they've got the necessary manpower to encamp in the front third.

If both sides play roughly the same style of football and both turn up with either a 4-5-1 or 5-4-1 formation (because they'll both enter the match cautiously; hoping not to lose) then the difference which does finally split them will come down to how well their midfielders defend and then punch out of their back third once and if they can win the ball. To that end, I think that the Victory are marginally better at that.

For the Victory, it will come down to how well Milligan can hold, turn and direct the ball through the midfield. Barbarouses is quite good at making minuscule runs which drag defenders out of place and Mahazi has this strange ability to blend into play and become completely invisible, before popping out with a perfectly weighted ball for Berisha to pounce upon. Berisha of course is a force to be reckoned with; all by himself. Provided defences aren't afraid of him, they can cancel him out but if they can not, he can and will pull the trigger from everywhere.
I expect that if Archie Thompson does get a run, it will be at least after the hour has elapsed because he is not as quick as he once was but once legs start to become tired, he is again a cut above the capabilities of most defensive back fours. Although Archie Thompson has made threatening noises that he would leave the club if they don't offer him a better offer, I think that its fair to say that at 36 years old, this is about as good as it's going to get. Yell too hard and it just might be a trip to the employment office on Monday.

Sydney does have Antonis in the centre of the park who doesn't really command or direct traffic around him but he does win a higher percentage of balls than most other midfielders, and so is able to demand possession. He and Naumoff provided they can win balks and control the midfield, are why Sydney was able to turn relatively dull periods of football into explosive attack.
Part of the reason why they are able to do this is the man on the end of their efforts: Bernard Ibini. Ibini is very good at filling the hole position behind the strikers and I think that he might even lead the league in terms of assists and second-last touches. Especially on the radio, commentary when Sydney have been winning games has sounded like "Ibini... Smeltz", or "Ibini... Brosque" or most commonly "Ibini... Janko!". In the event that Ibini has scored, it's usual because Sydney have been playing a higher line and he's struck from just inside the 18 yard box. Without Ibini, Janko appears to be either directionless or less well fed as a striker. Janko can find the back of the net quite effectively but only if he has a ball to play with. You can't score without a ball and Ibini is often the one who supplies it.

No doubt that both Kevin Muscat and Graham Arnold will have gone about this week like they always do, because this fixture is really no different to any other; it still takes 90 minutes to play and it still needs the players to do their jobs as they would for any other match. The only thing different is the promise of silverware at the end.

Unlike football in the English Premier League, there is no difference in pitch sizes at the various venues. Highbury and The Dell used to be very small pitches and Anfield for a while was very wide but in the A-League it doesn't matter if you go to Hindmarsh, Lang Park, the Sydney Football Stadium or Docklands. The decision to move the Grand Final from Docklands to the Melbourne Rectangular, does show a considerable degree of cynicism and spite on the part of the Western Bulldogs AFL team who pulled rank here, but it doesn't make a lick of difference when it comes to deciding how to play the match on Sunday.
The smaller crowd will be decidedly more partisan and in favour of the Melbourne Victory than it would have been if the match had been played at Docklands as originally intended (Sydney fans get an even smaller ticket allocation) but because the pitches are dimensionally identical, the home side advantage is significantly weaker in Australia than it is in England; with it only being worth 0.4 goals per match and not 1.3.

I think that there's so little in it that the result might come down to either a single moment of brilliance or a moment of madness. I don't think that either side given their attacking nature, have the discipline to last through 120 minutes of defensive and careful football. If they cancel each other out and it does go to extra time, the fact that 12 yellow cards were handed out in the semi finals suggests to me that as the two sides get ever more desperate, they will sink into the mire of dirty tactics. 2-2 and a penalty shootout might be possible but I don't think that 0-0 is.

Whatever the case, after the result it will be Blue Moon, I saw you standing alone... not with a small friend.

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